Mostly Clear Skies as Weather Channel Moves from Cable to Digital

/ Jun 11, 2013

VIS_WeatherChannel_Prospectors

If you thought about the Weather Channel (now “The Weather Company”) a decade ago, their TV channel looping weather data over elevator-meets-porn music with the forecast read to you by a robotic male would come to mind. Today, the Weather Company not only gives you the forecast instantaneously from its mobile apps or website, they’re also showing you slideshows of dogs playing in the snow and producing original web series like “Virus Hunters.” It’s all so modern, entertaining, and… profitable.

The most boring channel on TV has, surprisingly, become a hot digital property that even tortures its interns via Twitter stunts. Alexa currently ranks weather.com as the 25th most trafficked website in the United States with each viewer browsing an average of 4 pages, while Quantcast calculates 33 million viewers a month and Comscore places the site in the top 20 for video.

“It’s sort of a case of ‘how did we not do this sooner’” said Weather Company’s president of digital Cameron Clayton, in a phone interview regarding the company’s transformation into digital. The two realms, digital and cable, are “similar” in terms of “utility” and “the data-centric aspect to it,” he said.

Clayton, who joined the company in 2003, is referring to when the Weather Company was just the Weather channel on TV using computer systems to share weather data with cable viewers, the most recent IntelliStar offering the best graphics, a nicer sounding robot man, and the automatic switch to local broadcasts with a real-life meteorologist for weather alerts. By 2008’s Hurricane Ike, you can already see the Weather Company sensationalizing the impending storm with orchestra music befitting a medieval battle and producing weather-centric original cable shows like “When Weather Changed History” in the captured footage below:

Building apps and producing weather and nature-centric highly sharable web content was a natural fit as the company was more or less already doing this on cable.

“We produce 5500 videos a day, and about 3000 are local weather videos” said Clayton. “We have a whole system in place where we go through the top 200 markets” making video clips just for the web using “local tv talent” that “shoot clips of all day long, on shifts 24/7,” mostly out of their Atlanta headquarters. “We’re able to be hyperlocal at scale, and the scale which we can do this is huge,” said Clayton.

To give you an example of this massive hyperlocal infrastructure: 4.8 million people “just in Manhattan” tune in regularly to the Weather Company (website or mobile app) according to Clayton, who noted not without a hint of pride that “that’s larger than the New York Times.” The New York Times’ calculated its circulation at 1,865,318 this April, less than half of the Weather Company’s audience in one New York City borough.

People are clearly obsessed with the weather, and it’s not hard to see why given the ability of accurate forecasts to save lives, be they from hurricanes named Sandy or tornados named Moore.

FORECASTING ONLINE VIDEO APPETITES

Besides weather data, Weather.com now posts the latest viral video if it is nature related, and makes highly sharable listicles and slideshows like “Before the Bikini: Rare Vintage Beach Photos” or “Abandoned Train Stations: Left to the Elements.” This additional content is a recent development for the Weather Company that coincides with the arrival of Neil Katz, the VP of digital, who joined the team from the Huffington Post last October.

“We straddle stuff that is silly fun as well as hardcore science and breaking weather news… we take people to places they haven’t been before, or pull back the curtain on an interesting part of the world” said Katz in a phone interview regarding all the non-weather content online.

Over the past 6 months, the Weather company has been experimenting with the audience, with the popularity of certain non-breaking-weather content even surprising Katz.

The “learning process” has paid off, Katz said, and “it’s been enormously effective.” According to Katz, unique page views have grown 100% since last February while page view growth is 800% from last year.

The shift into original web series, of which the Weather Company is premiering this summer under Weather Films,  fits into their model of catering to the interests of various demographics.

Katz personally can’t wait for “I am Unstoppable,” which premiers in October and features six athletes that have overcome various obstacles including losing a limb. Beefing up their video production powerhouse involved a “huge investment” said Clayton, along with 20 new hires which included writers and video editors.

unstoppable-sarahreinertsen-horiz copy

Embracing digital – and a more entertaining ethos – has drawn some criticism from new media company Gawker, who recently called the Weather Company’s wordage and related content options “completely insane” in February.

When I asked Clayton about this, as well as the SNL skit “Stormy Skies” which also mocked the Weather Company’s new direction, he was nonplussed. “Our entry into pop culture, and the comedy they make of us, is a rite of passage that shows we are on the right track and, we are excited we are getting that recognition,” said Clayton.

Criticism aside, when it comes profits, the Weather Company is “definitely more profitable now that we’ve expanded into digital,” wrote communications director Maureen Marshall in an email. Not only that, Weather Company’s ad revenues are currently split 50/50 between TV and digital.

Not many, if any, cable channel can currently say that.

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